Relationship conflict: Why healthy couples fight

Can squabbling with your partner actually be a good sign for your relationship?

Happily ever after is the fairytale ending we are told from a young age.

But as we grow up, we quickly learn that relationships are hard work, and people in even the most successful unions are prone to the occasional quarrel.

Kate Lloyd, a senior clinical supervisor for Relationships Australia Queensland, says there has always been that ideal sort of myth that if you love someone, you don’t fight.

“But it’s not true,” Kate says.

“It’s a myth that’s always been around and for some reason is perpetuated through popular culture, things like movies, and social media.”

In fact, not only is conflict inevitable between couples, but it could be the secret to success.

Research shows pairs who openly express their frustration and displeasure in healthy ways rather than suppressing it report longer and happier marriages.

What causes conflict in relationships?

Every couple is different, but interestingly, the same fights often pop up in relationships time and again.

“One issue that comes up a lot is around different needs and levels of connection,” Kate says.

“Some people value or need more separateness, and some want more closeness in a relationship.

“Money is a big one too and having different values.”

Other common topics that lead to arguments are mismatched intimacy levels, child-rearing, jealousy issues and chores.

Jacqueline Hogan, a specialist in couples counselling in Bendigo, says the tiffs are usually not always serious issues, such as infidelity.

“Gottman Institute research shows that 69 per cent of couples’ conflicts are actually unsolvable, so people have to get very good at learning how to deal with conflict in their relationship in a healthy way,” Jacqueline says.

Why you need to put up a fight in relationships

A certain level of conflict is to be expected in any healthy relationship, according to the experts.

“Sometimes when couples come to me, they say they don’t fight,” Jacqueline says.

“That stands out to me, it shows that avoidance is probably going on, where one or both of them are not having discussions where they think their partner might disagree.’’

If issues go unaddressed over time, they are likely to fester and drive couples apart, she warns.

Kate agrees, saying a lack of conflict might be a sign of one or both people avoiding an issue or each other, and that couples need to deal with issues in a wholesome way to stay connected.

“Relationships are about embracing and managing differences,” she says.

“If you’ve got a good way of managing differences by having a little robust discussion, as a couple you learn to trust that your relationship can manage, and it feels safer.

“You also get quite good at repairing, so things don’t get heated to the point of being disrespectful.”

The difference between healthy conflict and abuse

Fighting the right way is the key to success, with research showing marriages where couples resort to destructive and negative behaviours are more likely to end in divorce.

“Bad conflict would be yelling, swearing, shouting, power control, gaslighting, manipulation and intimidation, that’s all very unhealthy,” Jacqueline says.

“To resolve conflict, it’s important that each partner feels heard and understood, which can’t happen when the emotion is very high.”

Violence in a relationship is also never OK, Kate says.

“If it’s unsafe and dangerous, that’s not a conflict. It’s actually abusive behaviour,” she says.

To have healthier conflict both experts recommend couples try approaching the discussion with a level head, be open to compromise, and try to better understand their partner’s point of view rather than focusing on who’s right or wrong.

Do not be reactive, Jacqueline warns.

“That’s where people become unstuck in the moment,” she says.

“You need to calm right down and really listen to the other person.”

For more expert relationship advice and check out the February edition of House of Wellness, available free with your Sunday News Corp masthead and at your local Chemist Warehouse.